Netflix officially filed a lawsuit on Friday against the creators of the TikTok smash hit “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical.” The company states that Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, the writers, have profited by using “verbatim dialogue, character traits and expression, and other elements” of the Netflix show without licensing from the company or from Bridgerton book series author Julia Quinn. Netflix also claims that they reached out to negotiate a license, but the creators refused. So what exactly is going on here, and what does it say for fanfiction creators everywhere?
The Bridgerton TikTok Musical
This musical started out as just one song: “Ocean Away,” sung by Barlow to answer the question, “What if ‘Bridgerton’ was a musical?” The video now has more than 2 million views, and the eventual album of songs released won the Grammy award for best musical theater album last year. Barlow and Bear were the youngest ever to win the category, at 23 and 20.
Last Tuesday, however, things changed when “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical” made it to the live stage. The show was performed at the Kennedy Center last Tuesday, with stars like Darren Criss and Kelli O’Hara. Additionally, another performance was set for September 20 at Royal Albert Hall in London. That’s when Netflix decided enough was enough. As the company stated on Friday:
Netflix owns the exclusive right to create Bridgerton songs, musicals, or any other derivative works based on Bridgerton. Barlow & Bear cannot take that right—made valuable by others’ hard work—for themselves, without permission.Netflix, July 30
But the “any other derivative works” part of the complaint has some fanfiction fans worried. So what’s the precedent here?
This Isn’t The First Fanfiction Controversy
Fanfiction has been around much longer than the Internet, but it certainly got more popular when it became possible to share your stories with the world. And anyone involved in fandom on sites like Tumblr or AO3 is definitely familiar with fanfic. But there was a period of time where fanfiction was threatened, at least by one author: Anne Rice.
The author of The Vampire Chronicles series, Rice, was extremely against fanfiction of her works. She posted a message on her website making this more than clear and had a lawyer send an email to Fanfiction.net that included the statement,
Even when done on a nonprofit and/or amateur basis, such use of such characters and material without Ms. Rice’s permission constitutes copyright infringement.
To put it mildly, people freaked out. There were rumors everywhere that Rice would start suing individual creators, although this never happened, and the fact that Fanfiction.net complied with the letter set an alarming precedent. But now, it seems like authors are generally much more okay with fanfiction. So what’s going on with the Bridgerton musical?
It’s About the Money
The key rule of keeping fanfiction legally okay is that you can’t make money off of it. And while some published novels, like 50 Shades of Grey and The Mortal Instruments, started as fanfiction, the authors changed enough about the characters and settings so that it didn’t constitute copyright infringement. This is a really important distinction when writers are thinking about creating fan content. Generally, the idea is that fanfiction is okay, but if you’re going to sell it, you have to make it unrecognizable first.
There’s been some controversy recently about things like binding books of fanfiction. Technically, it’s not commercially selling the story, just the physical book, but some bookbinders were getting permission from the fanfic author, which they probably don’t have the right to give. This was also a trend that got popular on TikTok, and while bookbinding hasn’t triggered a lawsuit yet, the Bridgerton musical did.
It seems like the legitimacy and financial benefit the musical got from live performances was too much for Netflix to be okay with. And that makes sense, given the legal precedent about fanfic. While some are worried that if Netflix wins the lawsuit, it could be bad for fanfiction writers, nothing about it would say that amateur fan works are illegal. Making money from them without permission from the author just isn’t allowed. As Shonda Rhimes, the showrunner for Bridgerton, stated on Saturday:
There is so much joy in seeing audiences fall in love with ‘Bridgerton’ and watching the creative ways they express their fandom. What started as a fun celebration by Barlow & Bear on social media has turned into the blatant taking of intellectual property solely for Barlow & Bear’s financial benefit.Shonda Rhimes, July 31
So AO3 writers probably don’t have to run for the hills yet. However the lawsuit goes, you can still stream “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical” for now and enjoy the fan-created songs about the period drama that so many have loved.
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